Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Like bikinis, baseball stats show a lot but not everything


“There’s no crying in baseball,” Tom Hank’s “Jimmy Dugan” laments in the baseball movie A League of Their Own (1992).  There’s no crying in baseball, it’s true.  And no clocks.  Time doesn’t exist in baseball.  Only moments.  

Moments where anything happens and often does, recorded in the form of numbers and letters and abbreviations on a dance card called a scoresheet.  Short, cryptic croppings like: F9, HBB, 6-4-3, K, 1B8, HR, E6, BB, 2B9, RBI, S8, PH.  And many more, each a captured result, or moment, those moments which depart with a pitch and arrive at some other place in the universe, nobody knowing for sure where.  Like jumping through hyperspace without a star chart, all you know is you’re still in space, or still watching a baseball game.  But the destination arrives pitch after pitch, batter after batter, out after out, and if not for the scoresheet we’d never remember exactly how.  

You see, it’s all about the statistic, the stat.  The game boiled down to results: a strike, a hit, an out, a run, an error, a substitution, an RBI.  All sports have stats.  But stats lose a certain mystique when gathered within the rigid realm of clocks counting down to 00:00.

“Statistics are to baseball what a flaky crust is to Mom’s apple pie.” – Harry Reasoner

The scorebook’s origin goes back to 1845, when the game was still taking shape.  Journalist Henry Chadwick (1824-1908), an English immigrant with a fondness for cricket, is credited with writing baseball’s first rulebook and devising the box score, a formula still used in newspapers today.  Though, a committee determined that Civil War General Abner Doubleday invented baseball, Chadwick is regarded as the game’s father, and most influential visionary.  Some debate remains on that point.

Visitors vs. Home, a whole page for each.  The grid works down for each starter, usually nine, and across for each inning, again usually nine.  There’s a section for pitchers.  Nine batters will face nine defenders for nine innings, three outs at a time.  No more is needed to determine a winner, though five innings at least or it’s tossed (erased from the very fabric of time itself).  A number is assigned one through nine for each defensive player, starting with: 1-pitcher, 2-catcher, 3-first base, 4-second base, 5-third base, 6-shortstop, 7-left field, 8-center field, and finally 9-right field.  The date, time, umpires, pitch counts, temperature, and anything else factually related gets penciled in, deemed crucial and necessary (another ingredient to the recipe).  

A finished scoresheet is similar to an elegant score of music.  Hidden in plain sight, a whole language of movement and meaning scratched in crooked characters and symbols, each telling another piece of the story, a story that unfolds to the trained eye.  The main difference: a score of music can be examined by a conductor and surveyed bar by bar, where he or she hears it breathe on the page, and can measure its tempo, and gauge its very mood, and suffer the agony, and glow in the rapture.  

A baseball scoresheet can show mood, agony, and rapture, but certainly not with very much feeling or drama.  In one game, for example, it’s obvious which team scored a lot, thanks to timely hitting, extra base hits, and a few throwing errors from the opposing team.  Or, in another case, pitching dominated batters inning after inning, until middle relievers––replacements––threw it all away in the 7th and 8th. 

The scoresheet’s humble beginnings of pulp and microscopic fibers from wood and grasses are indistinguishable from other types of paper.  It’s probably not even special by paper standards, as paper all by itself is pretty standard.  However, once a template gets inked across the surface something magical happens.  

A contradiction is born.  

For a game where time doesn’t exist, the scoresheet becomes an elaborate time piece––a most peculiar device with a first pitch “on-switch,” and a final out “off-switch”––to be used at some time in the future, at some ballpark, in some dugout, by an old lady in the stands, or in a press box like the one at Lewis Clark State College’s Harris Field, where official stats are gathered and stored in perpetuity.  

Once pressed into service and deemed official by the baseball powers, the scoresheet is now a time capsule, uniquely bound to a specific span of hours and circumstances.  And finally a time machine, able to go backwards to a place in the past, whenever necessary.  An hour ago, or a century, and all points in between, a reserve of facts, history, and knowledge.  Stats.  

“Baseball ought never be hurried.  It is the only unhurried institution we have left, which is one reason, I think, we love it.”  --James Kilpatrick

So then, how long is the life span of a baseball game?  An hour?  Two hours?  Three hours, or more?  No one knows for sure.  That’s because the tempo of the game is set by the recording of outs.  No hard and fast rules exist regarding how long outs are supposed to take.  Fast, slow, kind of quick, kind of slow, a reasonable amount of time?  Again, there are no shot-clocks, halftimes, quarters or timeouts.  

The outs decide their own pace.  Some are fast, like popping out to right field after swinging on the first pitch (goes as F9 in the book).  Other outs take longer.  Further, they are never automatic.  For example, one at-bat could progress over 12 or 13 pitches.  It might end with a strike out, or pop up, or ground out.  Then again, maybe that same hitter finally watches ball four cross the plate (BB in the statbook).  He walks.  The whole at bat took the better part of 10 minutes, and in the end the batter reaches on a walk.  He wasn’t out; he was safe.  Try again.

Thankfully, outs come quickly at times too.  Alone or in pairs, double plays happen frequently (2 outs), and triple plays (3 outs, pretty rare) are known to exist in the game.  
The next batter slaps a grounder to the second baseman, who flips to the shortstop covering second base for the force out, (that guy who just walked, the one who displayed incredible patience and a good eye, the one who hogged all of our precious time––he’s out now, thankfully), then the shortstop rifles the ball over to first base (4-6-3 DP... 2 outs).  The spectacle took seconds by comparison.  

Fast, slow, the scoresheet doesn’t mind either way, whether it be leisurely like a Sunday afternoon or frantic like a Monday morning.  Record the hits, record the runs, record the outs, record the stats.  It’s not tempo, for a better word than tempo must exist as it applies to baseball, but I’m hard pressed to think of one now.  Pace?  Cadence?  Speed?  None of those words seem to work either.  It’s just outs––they take however damn long they take.

“The game isn’t over until it’s over.” --Baseball great Yogi Berra
You can’t have stats without playing a little baseball, so thank God for broadcasters and baseball writers, who give our humble stats some color and a story to tell.  

It’s a beautiful game.   

“PLAY BALL!” the home plate umpire yells.  Greetings exchange between the lead-off hitter and masked catcher.  They each give a nod to the umpire.  

One guy carries a bat.  The other guy is covered in armor.  “The tools of ignorance” the catcher’s gear is called.  It’s not even a fair fight.  His friends are out there too, not dressed like the catcher, not like a gladiator, but nonetheless foreboding in their greater numbers.  They eyeball the batter, as though he’d wandered into the wrong dark alley.

The batter fidgets and scrapes at the dirt with his cleats, digging in.  He waves the bat, menacing them, teasing them, taunting them.  He means business, wants them to know it.  

Time capsule: ON.  Called strike, ball 1, ball 2, and a foul ball makes strike two.  The pitcher throws gas, nips the outside corner.  The batter can only watch, he’s too late.  He looks at strike 3 as it crosses the plate.  That’s a “K” in most books, circled.  If scored by hand it’s a backwards K.  

“He was caught looking, called out for excessive window shopping.” –The late, great Detroit Tiger announcer Ernie Harwell.

Batter up.  In the chalk-lined box he stands, a hand held up, time to anchor his cleats, find some ruts, and scratch his nuts.  He waves the bat, too, steely eyed and stone-faced.  Meanwhile, the pitcher and catcher roll through signs.  Silent conspirators, they speak in finger wags and head nods before every pitch.  The batter is left to guess what pitch comes next.  

Crouched behind the plate the catcher flashes an index finger straight down.  Fast ball.  The pitcher shakes him off.  Insubordination!  The catcher glares at the pitcher back through his mask, thrusting two fingers down sharply.  Curve ball.  The pitcher approves, nods to the catcher.  Consensus.

The batter expects a fast ball, but gladly sits on the big, hanging curve ball.  He waits, swings with some heft, sends a towering fly ball to deep left.  The pitcher’s head jerks around to watch the ball’s majestic flight.  Groans from the grandstand, it fades from sight.  

The left fielder is determined, knows his home field well, looks over his shoulder, races to the warning track.  Course plotted; variables known.  Back-back-back he goes, a collision of leather, flesh, and particle board awaits at the wall.  His hat leaps from his head, makes a jump for it ahead of the carnage.
Crash!  The left fielder yields to the fence awkwardly.  Gasps from the grandstand, then silence. Dust erupts from the dirt.  Flailing, the left fielder is dazed, perhaps hurt.  He is well-coached, though, knows exactly what to do.  His glove shoots up for out number two.  He caught it!  Is he sore?

The stat: fly out to left field––“F7”––and no more.   

Next batter.  More scraping.  More scheming.  More scratching.  Strike 1 (called), strike 2, ball 1, ball 2, ball 3, now the count is full.  Here’s the pitch . . .  the batter tinks a dribbler towards the third baseman.  The infielder charges and snatches the ball barehanded off the grass and fires it across the diamond to first just a step ahead of the runner.  

That was close.  Too close.  “5-3” goes in the book and the side is retired.  

Scalding temper launches the visiting team’s coach out of the dugout like a cannon shot.  Shouting.  Rage.  The umpire shows his back and waltzes out to right field, beyond giving a good goddamn.  The coach rounds on the umpire, infuriated now, jaws at him like he’s the lousiest piece of crap umpire the game of baseball ever did see.  The umpire folds his arms, takes it.  Then gives some. 

They go at it for a bit.  Just jawin’ and growlin’ and spittin’ at each other like kodiak bears fighting over a rotten fish.  Expletives.  Warnings.  This goes on for quite some time, but then the coach retreats.

Three up and three down to start the Visitor’s 1st.  Quite the half inning to watch in person, or listen to on the radio.  The scoresheet saw it this way: [K.. F7.. 5-3..  0 runs 0 hits 0 errors].  That’s it.  

Now the home team comes to bat.  Moore leads off and draws a walk (BB), and next to bat is Bridges, who hits into a double play (6-4-3).  “Two for the price of one.”  Ernie Harwell again.  Eccles deposits a line drive down the right field line and reaches second base with a stand up double (2B9).  Gaylord steps in and launches the third pitch over the center field wall. (HR.. RBI2.. both runs earned).  Miller reaches on an error by the second baseman, when a relatively easy ball scoots through the wickets (E4).  Shaw grounds the fourth pitch, another chance for the second baseman, who flips the ball to the shortstop waiting on the bag for a fielder’s choice force out (FC46).  

Scoresheet: [BB.. 6-4-3.. 2B9.. HR2.. E4.. FC46.. 2 runs 2 hits 1 error 1 runner left on base].  Inning one is in the books.  It’s 2-0, home team with the lead and eight more innings to go, or 48 more outs (if you’re keeping score at home).

"They both (bikinis & statistics) show a lot, but not everything." – Toby Harrah